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Debunked: Irish people in colonies were not slaves - they were indentured servants

Posts that are being shared on social media claim Irish people ‘experienced the horrors of slavery’ more than African people.

AS THE BLACK Lives Matter movement garnered more publicity in recent weeks following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there has been a surge in posts on social media making claims about ‘Irish slavery’.

Irish historian Liam Hogan, who has a significant body of work in this area, has pointed to a sudden increase in online searches about ‘Irish slaves’ in the US recently:

Some posts shared on social media platforms claimed the first Irish slaves imported into American colonies were Irish – a claim we have already debunked.

In the last week, a photograph that appears to show a number of men crammed into cages has been widely shared, with text about the “Irish slave trade”.

One such post, which echoes claims made in other Facebook posts, says:

“There is little question that the Irish experienced the horrors of slavery as much (if not more in the 17th Century) as the Africans did.”

It goes on to state: “But, if anyone, black or white, believes that slavery was only an African experience, then they’ve got it completely wrong. Irish slavery is a subject worth remembering, not erasing from our memories.”

Let’s start with the photograph that is used with these posts. A number of articles and this Italian history blog have identified this images as showing Italian coal miners in an elevator of a mine in Belgium in 1900.

It does not show slaves, or even indentured servants, and it does not appear from reports that any of these men – or the two women seen in the image – are Irish. 

Slaves v indentured servants

Indentured servitude is not the same as slavery, and to be a servant is not the same as being a slave, neither legally nor by definition.

Indentured servants had to serve for between four and seven years before being freed – in the American colonies, this was a way of ‘paying’ for their passage to the New World.

Many servants, according to historians, entered into a contract with their ‘employers’ voluntarily, though some were forcibly deported from their home countries and into indentured servitude.

Matthew Reilly, a professor of anthropology at City College of New York, has done extensive research in this area along with Jerome Handler, senior scholar at Virginia Humanities at the University of Virginia. 

Indentured servants were considered human beings under the law, while slaves were not. Reilly said the deeds and wills they reviewed from Barbados from the 1630s and 1640s demonstrate this. 

“What we see when planters [colony settlers] are transferring their property holdings to another person, whether it’s through a deed, or when they pass away in a will, we’re seeing that labourers are listed very specifically,” he told TheJournal.ie

“If an indentured servant is found on that list, their first and last name is included, recognising their point of origin, recognising their familial line going back generations by giving them a last name. And then all of those cases, we also see how much time is left to serve. So it’ll give a person’s first and last name, and then how many years they have left to serve.

Then in the next category, you’ll see a list of who will be referred to as ‘the Negroes’ on the estate and in those cases, it’s always just a first name, no last name and no time to serve. So this indicates the denial of personhood. And it also indicates that they’re denying their genealogy, their parentage, and their ancestry more or less. So it’s certainly a commentary on who also is a person and who is not.

Chattel slavery meant that people were the legal property of other people, and it wasn’t entered into voluntarily. If a woman who had been sold as a slave had a child, that child would then be legally classified as a slave.

“Early on before we have the legal precedents, this would be part of what was referred to as the custom of the country. And within that custom children born to enslaved mothers would inherit the status of their mother,” Reilly explained.

So in these cases, this is something that was fully codified into law as we get a few decades into the English colony in Barbados, and certainly something that would be adopted in other colonies like Jamaica, Virginia. So these laws were spread widely.

Reilly said this was not the case for indentured servants. In some cases there are records of parents dying and their children becoming wards of the State, but they did not inherit the indentured servant status of their parents. 

Freedom

As we’ve already mentioned, indentured servants entered into contracts and once they had served their time, they were free to move on. 

“In principle the contract of indenture would indicate that upon the completion of a period of servitude, they would then be granted their freedom along with a parcel of land or a certain amount of goods, whether in sugar or other commodities,” Reilly said.

How much this actually happened in practice is up for debate. We get very few records indicating that this may have actually happened. But what we do know is that in some cases, former indentured servants would go on to do quite well for themselves.

He cited research by Jenny Shaw, a historian at the University of Alabama, about an Irish indentured servant called Cornelius Bryan. 

Bryan was brought before the Barbados Council accused of slandering English colonists and received twenty-one lashes on his back as punishment. 

“But we then track Cornelius Bryan and a few years later on his deathbed in his will, he leaves to his heirs several enslaved Africans. So he kind of moves up the ladder in that hierarchy because he has the opportunity to do so. This is not something that would be afforded to an enslaved African,” Reilly explained.

There is no historical evidence to back up claims that Irish people “experienced the horrors of slavery as much (if not more in the 17th Century) as the Africans did”, as social media posts claim.

However Reilly said there is truth to statements about poor treatment of Irish indentured servants. 

“The work that I have been conducting, part of it is to combat this notion of white or Irish slavery, at the same time recognising the brutality of the experience. We’re not in any way trying to diminish the hardships that were suffered by countless indentured servants, many of which were sent over against their will,” he said.

“In many ways, there are similarities to the system of slavery, but there are careful distinctions that make it a very different experience on the ground, whether it’s through social principles, or legal principles.”

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Misinformation

Earlier this week, historian Liam Hogan said this narrative about Irish slavery “goes much deeper than people simply unwittingly spreading misinformation, the far-right seeding disinformation or bot farms sowing discord”.

“The denial and ignorance across society about the legacy of the transatlantic slaves trade it remnant of the ideological system that sustained it”. 

Professor Reilly said he believes the sharing of these posts – and particularly the timing around them – is a kind of “historical revisionism”.

“I think the common thread running throughout many of these posts is it’s almost like the historical way of saying ‘all lives matter’. It’s a way of suggesting that ‘my genealogy is part of the story as well’. So in many ways it’s a push back against Black Lives Matter, but it’s also an inclusion in historical victimisation and historical suffering.

“It’s certainly part of this neo-liberal notion that if you work hard enough, you can overcome any type of historical suffering.”

******

There is a lot of false news and scaremongering being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie

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